Cemetery Mary

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 6.50.50 AMThe other day I saw someone wearing a shirt that was bright neon green. On the front of the left breast, was a word I couldn’t quite read. The text was laid out in a way that made the word look like AMY TH. I was having a conversation with this person and at the same time was trying to work out what the letters meant. “Why was my name on her shirt?” “What does that say.” And then the letters came in and out of focus and the words finally appeared. A MYTH. And for the first time in my life I realized my name was in A MYTH. It was a message from the myths themselves. I’ve been studying myths in my own time for over 12 years now and I could probably say that most of my life has been dedicated to studying myth, or maybe the myths were studying me.

When I was small I would walk through my small town, from the far end where my house was, to the swamp, to the woods, from blackberry brambles to tall weeds and the Mill Pond, Cromaine Library, The Village Market, to the cemetery. The cemetery was one of my favorite places. In the cemetery, there was no sound, I couldn’t hear my brothers and sisters, no one hits you in the cemetery, no yells, and no one cares that you are not where you are supposed to be, which is usually wherever you are. So, before leaving the house I would get two slices of American cheese and 8 saltine crackers, put them in a paper towel, hide them under my shirt so no one would ask what I was doing or where I was going and I would run. Run, run as fast as I could – to the cemetery, down the back dirt path, down Henry street, along the painted black wrought iron fence on the outside of the cemetery, to the back entrance, down a short pathway, to a statue of the Virgin Mary. She stood facing me, with her arms held out as if she wanted me to be there. As if she welcomed me. I’d sit down on her concrete pedestal and open my feast of cheese and crackers and give one to Mary and one to me. I would tell Mary all my worries, which were many, even at that time. She was someone I could talk to. Where I could pour out all the things that I could not feel, that I could not hold inside of me any longer, and for a moment, feel better. After telling Mary my woes, I’d stand up, turn around, look up at her, her concrete face with sun shining on it, look down to the crackers and cheese left for her, say goodbye and run, run, run, off to some other place in town.

My family had no religion, although my Mother would tell anyone that would listen that she was Catholic, as if they couldn’t tell from the 10 kids she had given birth to. The only signs of religion in our home were in her bedroom, one cross with Jesus nailed to it, her rosary, and her communion bible, which were hidden away in her banged up jewelry box.  She had to deliver her communion in Polish, don’t you know? This is all I knew. She didn’t pass this religion on to us. I have no idea why and I never asked and I never told anyone that I shared these secret moments with Mary.

If I had been wise at the time – I would have seen that this was the beginning of A Myth of my lifetime. AMYTH, with my name in it. The Virgin Mother, the idea of the good Mother, the Mother Mary, my first altar, the anti-masculine, the divine feminine, where I offered food and my thoughts to the purest myth there is.

AND now I cannot un-see it. Whenever I see the two words together I know “I am a myth”. I have to laugh and almost squeal in delight because for me, this was a small sign from the universe that says, you’re on the right path. Keep going. You got it. GO!

the courage to speak

IMG_1745I’ve written about courage before, here and here.

I was in Charleston, South Carolina recently, a place that I once called home. A place that echoes a mysterious call to me. The food, the Charleston drawl, the landscape – the secrets.

Walking around in the older parts of Charleston, I can almost hear the whispers of hundreds of years of history. I can also hear and feel the pain of those whispers. Some of those whispers are my own.

On that trip, I ended up on a boat with some friends and friends of friends and some older white men and women who were obviously from money, or trying to seem like they were from money. Some were dressed in Polo shirts and khakis that were ever so crisp, others layered with beautiful linens and looked ever so “done”. Makeup, hair, clothes all in perfect alignment.

We were surrounded by beauty, the inlets off Morgan Creek, the scent of pluff mud, the green grasses and marshy water, the sun high overhead with a cool breeze. As the booze flowed and we made our way through fresh oysters and beaufort stew with shrimp caught that very morning, conversations broke off into groups. Music and a little dancing began, it was exactly as Charleston should be.

I sat on the edge of the boat looking off into the marsh, remembering other days, other times and was sinking into happiness, when off to the other side of the boat I overhead a man, late 60s early 70s say something about “some nigger”.  My heart dropped and my chest puffed out, did I hear that?  And then he said it again.  I thought to myself “I’ve got to say something right now. He cannot say that.”

Instead of jumping right up and marching over there, I was paralyzed. I’m on a boat with people I do not know, some are colleagues of one of my friends. I want to go say something to this man and let him know it is not okay to say that in front of me, in front of anyone. And yet, I cannot move, I’m a character in this story, this is not my story. It’s not my place, my people, I do not have to work with these people, my friends do.

It reminded me of a time when I was in college as a Sophomore at the College of Charleston, it was a Friday, I was in my dorm room and there were parties going on out on the breezeway and in some rooms. My roommates and I were having beers. I went out on the breezeway and was smoking and just down the way were some Citadel cadets, obvious because of their haircuts. I didn’t know them, but one called out to me “Hey dyke!” I looked and said “What? What did you call me?” he said “You’re a dyke right?” I was seething, but what could I say back? I didn’t identify as a dyke, I’m definitely gay, but I’m not all that butch or anything. I’m also a Sophomore in college, still trying to figure things out in life. What do I say?

From out of nowhere Brandon, a former Citadel Cadet that I knew through his girlfriend appeared and called these young cadets to attention and pressed them against the wall.

“Hey! You apologize to her, right now. That is not behavior appropriate for a cadet.” He barked.

The Cadet apologized to me.

Brandon told the rest of the guys that he’d be sure to see them back on campus and they should head there now. They filed past me, nodding and apologizing, shame holding down the bold words they said before.

Brandon had the courage to say something and it made a difference to me.

This is the South I remember, this is the South I left behind, the good, the bad, the courageous, the ugly.

On that day on a boat in Charleston, the whispering of old Charleston sat right beside me and I said nothing. I didn’t have the courage to speak up in the same way that Brandon did. It wouldn’t have mattered, to anyone, but me. It would have mattered to me. And I have to admit, I let myself down that day.

With everything going on in the world today, from Furgeson, to Peshawar, to Sony executives, to Bill Cosby, to change any of it, I have to start with myself and what I bring to the world everyday, not just what I say I am, but who I truly am. The things I allow in my life, the way I speak in private, is who I am.

I have more work to do. We all have more work to do.

On_thanks_and_giving

I’m dusting this off again this year. This memory never gets old for me. Happy for thanks and happy forgiving.

At Thanksgiving – I am more than thankful – I remember.

I remember my Mother. The way her hands moved over raw turkey, salting and buttering under the skin. She was mindful about food and set in her ways about how this or that should be done, when it came to cooking. All ten of us kids were banished from the kitchen, but I would watch – from a distance – in wonder – at how she made things – all from scratch – all on more than a tight budget.

When I was old enough, which wasn’t very old – I was allowed into the kitchen – for a few minutes – to add butter, milk, salt and pepper to the potatoes – only in her way.

She’d mash with an old hand masher, thick grooved metal at the end and a wooden handle that used to be red, but was mostly worn down to the wood. I’d add things. In her way.

Butter first. She’d hand me a butter knife and put a stick of butter on the table, still cold in the wrapper. “We’ve got to add this butter while the potatoes are hot.” I’d slice off inch after inch of butter, unwrap and throw it into the pan – all as fast as I could. She’d mash and then stop to look into the pan. “More butter.” I’d slice, unwrap and throw in again. “See there, it’s not all white anymore.”

Then milk. She’d mash and I’d pour into the old battered, but still solid cooking pot. My small hands balancing the gallon jug of milk, one hand at the top, one at the bottom.  “Not too much milk.” She’d mash and mash. “Potatoes should be creamy, not too thick, not too thin. Add some more milk.” Bang. She’d hit the side of the pan with the masher. The potatoes fell back with a thud. “More milk.” More mashing – Bang – the potatoes fall back – with a lightness.

Then pepper.  “You should see the right amount of pepper all through the potatoes.” I’d shake and shake, the pepper never came out of the pepper shaker very fast. “See that’s right, now you can see pepper everywhere.”

Then salt to taste. I’d shake the not really white anymore, plastic Tupperware shaker with the broken lid, a few times. “Potatoes need a lot more salt than you think, Amy.” I’d shake and shake and laugh, so much shaking. She’d press on, now with more stirring than mashing, fluffing up the potatoes. She’d drop a finger into the pan and bring potatoes up to her mouth. The back of her hand would come into focus. Thin and thick at the same time, veins standing out, small brown spots, always tan, but not leathery. Their smell in my mind without ever smelling them, onions, salt, butter, flour – it’s as if she had been cooking her whole life.

“Mmmm, but not yet, more salt, a little more milk.” I’d pour and scramble to keep up. And then bang, bang, bang, the masher on the side of the pot, to shake off all the mashed potato stuck to the masher. With me standing on the chair next to the table – she’d hand over the masher. I’d scrape it clean with my hands, shoveling what was left into my mouth – jump down – turn on the sink – rinse the masher and throw it into the sink with another bang.

Mom would cover the potatoes still in their pot and I would go back to doing whatever it is we do on Thanksgiving, on a cold November day – hoping for snow, thinking about Christmas, fighting with each other, watching the black and white TV – In the middle of nowhere in Michigan.

and the holidays

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 9.12.08 AMWhen I was small, I loved the thought of Christmas and the thought of getting gifts. We never got much and it was almost always the off brand when we did get something, but I always hoped there was something spectacular under the tree.

Some might say, I should have been thankful for what I received. But me, at 10, 12, 16, or even now at 43 – I’ve always thought we could do better, save more, get just one nice thing instead of 10 terrible things.

When I was 11 my parents left me with my two brothers – I’ve written about this before in TODD. As we approached Christmas, I began to work on this piece about Christmas, but couldn’t finish it until now. It’s not that I hold onto these memories and dwell on them, it’s more like they hold onto me.  The Holidays are hard for me, but not as hard as they used to be. Instead of avoiding the memories, I now embrace them in this way or that and they are only a part of the story I have lived.  They don’t rule my life, they don’t define me now, but they are a reflection of my experiences and I can’t help but think about them from time to time.

~

Mom calls once a week and talks to Bobby and Johnny, I sometimes talk to her and sometimes I don’t get a turn.  When I do talk to her, I don’t know what to say. I just listen to her breathe on the phone. I wish she were home and I want to tell her that, but I don’t know how to make the words come out of my mouth.  She sounds happier being away, she laughs, she’s fishing, going to the flea market and visiting with people and Dad is working. I like her to be happy. So, I don’t tell her anything about me or how I’m feeling, because I don’t know.

It’s a few weeks before Christmas and I’ve long stopped wishing for something spectacular under the tree – that’s just not how it works – we don’t have the money. So, I hope for snow and trips to the library and good TV shows that I’m allowed to watch.

Mom is on the other end of the phone and she says, “We got you something you’ve always wanted for Christmas. You’ll love it. We’re sending it in a box with some other things and it will get there right before Christmas.” As I look back today, I wonder what I thought she was sending. Love? Safety? Security? What had I always wanted? That’s what I needed, but I couldn’t say it. I didn’t know how and back then – I didn’t know that’s what I wanted.

I say – “Wow! I can’t wait until it gets here!”

A week or more pass and Johnny and Bobby have decided they will get a Christmas tree, but not put it in the living room where we usually have it when Mom is here, but they will put it in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, which they have turned into the living room and the old living room is now the sitting room. Looking back, none of us belonged in that life, I wanted to be spectacular and they wanted a sitting room. We were made for better times and things.

We tromp through the snow and the woods to find the tallest tree that will fit in the house and they chop it down – because they love to chop things, kick things, build things, fix things. They drag it back to the house and get it into the stand and decorate. I don’t like decorating, because whatever I put on the tree is not right and not in the right place – according to them. So, eventually I give up and sit on the couch. I eat some chewy Christmas candy left over from last year. They string the lights, put ornaments on, throw tinsel all over and then decide it is time to decorate the GIANT pine tree outside.

The tree outside is so tall that I cannot see the top when I look up, I have to go out into the yard to see the top. I warn them about climbing that tree. “Remember Johnny – how you broke your arms climbing the tree across the street. Mom says don’t climb trees.” They laugh as if I’m crazy and get a ladder and a big mess of lights and go out into the yard. The way Mom tells the story about Johnny’s fall is: “You were in the bathtub and I had to get you out fast because someone ran up to the door and said Johnny was hurt. So I pulled you out and told you get dry and dressed and ran to the front door. When I got there – I saw his arms and they were all crooked. And I took a deep breath and said someone run and get Ardis and see if she can drive us to the hospital. And then Johnny said “I’m sorry Mom.” That’s all he said. That’s it. Broken arms and all and he said he was sorry. He didn’t cry one tear when they set them back in place. He was so brave.”  All I remember was I had wet hair and was running a comb through it and I peeked out at Johnny and his arms were all twisted around, his wrists going in the wrong direction. I felt light-headed and sat down and combed my hair some more. He came home with casts up to the elbow on each arm and laid on the couch for a week or more and someone had to help him pee. I’m glad it wasn’t me. That’s how I tell the story.

They work for hours on that tree making sure every bulb is in the right place and when they are finished it’s the best Christmas tree I’ve ever seen in person. Big red, green and blue bulbs light up and shine bright. We laugh and it’s fun being out with these guys in the snow putting up Christmas lights, even though I’m only watching. I would like to be a dare-devil and climb that tree, but there is no way I want to break my arms so I’m not doing it.

A few days later, when I get home from school Bobby and Johnny are busy doing something, wrapping something and laughing. It’s the last day of school before Christmas and I am home now for the week, it’s Wednesday and I only have to wait two days until Christmas, but really only one day to open presents – on Christmas Eve. That tradition started because my Dad used to be with his other family on Christmas day. The one he was married to and not us and that is an entirely different story for another time. I’m happy to be off school, but bored because I know I’ll be listening to a whole lot of Billy Joel and Foreigner on my Dad’s 8-track player that is now in the sitting room. These guys listen to it non-stop, so loud that I can’t watch TV.

They tell me “Stay out of here, we’re wrapping Christmas presents from Mom and Dad.” Laughing and laughing, rustling paper, I watch a rerun of Brady Bunch and there’s a small part of me that is excited and thinks maybe, just maybe this year something spectacular is going to be under that tree.

They come out of the living room and say, “You can take a look now.” I don’t care anymore, but that small part of me that hopes for something special goes to take a look. The tree is full underneath with what looks like 30 or more presents all wrapped with bows and some even have a ribbon around them. There is one giant box in the back corner of the tree, almost behind it.

Bobby says “That one is for you.”
I smile and say “Really? What it is it?”
They laugh “Stupid, we aren’t going to tell you what it is, go pick it up and shake it.”
“I don’t want to.” I say.
“C’mon just try it.” I walk around and it is so heavy I can barely lift it. “What is it?”
“Guess.” I’m really not into this whole thing of guessing. I’m never right, so I don’t guess and sit on the couch again.
They laugh and say “Don’t you wonder what it is?”
“It’s heavy.” I say
“What could be so heavy?” Bobby yells grinning ear to ear.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s a bowling ball?”
“You don’t even like bowling.” Johnny says.
I can’t figure it out.

I’m excited, but I’m not telling anyone, so I sit on the couch and wonder and wonder.

On Christmas Eve, Johnny says “Let’s open presents on Christmas morning like normal people.” Bobby says “Yeah, that’s what normal people do.” I do not want to do this so I grumble around and get mad and punch the couch, but I know they are not going to change their minds. So, we watch some TV and drink soda, eat candy and eventually I fall asleep on the couch.

When I wake up, I don’t really want to open presents but Bobby and Johnny are so excited. They say “You have to wait and open the big one last!”
“Can’t I open it first?”
“No, we’re saving the best for last, Mom said.”
“Mom’s not here, so who cares.” I fire back.
“We’ll tell.”
“Fine.”
We open socks and underwear and I open a new nightgown and some other things that don’t matter. There is wrapping paper everywhere, all over the living room. Bobby brings me the big box. My stomach flutters as I peel back the paper and pull back the tape on the top of the box.

I close my eyes and open the box, it’s full of packing peanuts. I scoop handfuls out and onto the floor and then I see something. Gray and dark, so I dig on and I see more of something gray and dark and I stop and tears flow and flow and flow. I scoot back from the box and cry. “ROCKS!” I scream “They sent me rocks?”  I can see on their faces – they realize – they were playing a joke –but I do not think this is a joke and it is not funny.

“Amy, Amy, it’s okay, really there is a present in there, we just thought it would be funny to put rocks in there. There really is a present in there Amy, seriously.” I scoot back further. “I don’t want it. I don’t care. You are the meanest people I have ever known” I sob, sniffing snot back.

“Amy, really, look, it’s something you’ve always wanted it. Look Amy.” they plead.

I look and they have a brown plastic box in their hands. I rip it out of their hands and open it. It’s a silver watch with digital time – something I have always wanted.  I pull it out of the box, it has a stretchy metal band on it. I pull back the band and slide it over my wrist. It feels cheap on my arm, like a play toy. I pull it off and throw it down. “I don’t want it. It’s like everything else, cheap. They probably got it at a flea market.”

I put some jeans on, pull on a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks and my boots. Put my coat on, slam the door and walk to the woods where everything is quiet. In the middle of the trees and snow – I stand and cry again, the cold feels good on my hot wet face.

~

While my brothers are villains in this story and Todd, I adored them and loathed them.  They were kids themselves trying to take care of me in the ways they new how, like teenage boys.

Todd

I’ve thought about this time in my life a lot lately. It’s hard to imagine me at 11 processing these feelings on my own. I think it all adds up, all the grief, you remember, even if you don’t remember consciously your body remembers and while I do believe if you work with it and acknowledge it, it helps in the letting go – there are still times that it comes back.

* * *

Todd

5788669410_dd5f58de70_bMy home sits in the middle of a block in north Portland, Oregon. It’s a 1950s bungalow, remodeled in 1950s style and color, painted a fresh bright mint green, a brown door with three beveled glass windows in it, white trim and two taupe colored stairways leading up from the sidewalk.

One Sunday evening I am staring at nothing out the front windows in the kitchen and see a small black cat, sauntering—yes, he is sauntering—up the left set of stairs. He’s a tiny little thing with bright green eyes. “Oh look, a black cat,” I yell to my partner, Julie. “What?” she says, running into the kitchen, leaning toward the window. He walks right up the steps onto the back patio. Julie is absolutely and utterly excited about the prospect of another cat. She grabs the cat food and rushes outside, sprinkling it on the ground. Not too rushed, though. “I don’t want to scare him off,” she says. I stand inside for a moment and eventually move to the doorway with the door nearly shut behind me so Isabel, the cat that lives with us, doesn’t run out. “Oh, he’s so skinny—he must not have a home. His head looks so big because he’s too skinny.” She is knelt down next to him, but not too close, barely touching him. I can see his tiny ribs, black fur flecked with gray. He is older than I would have thought, his skin sagging a little. The shining smile in Julie’s eyes when she looks up at me has me feeling momentarily outrageous, so much so that I want to shout out, “Let’s keep him!”

“We’ll call him Todd, since his head is so big—after Big Head Todd and the Monsters,” she says. I feel it in my heart, yes, let’s keep him. What happens next is how it always is with me—my brain and my body take over. My old memories flood back to me, and I hate using the word flood to describe emotions, but it is what it feels like. I can’t turn it off. I can talk myself through it, but I can’t turn it off. The images that come to me are the way they are. I can’t really say it out loud either. So I brood on it and sit there, feeling something stuck in my throat, as if to speak it would cause me great harm, but it’s in there and it wants to come out. So much so that this little cat has become a metaphor in my life for the words that I need to speak, that I need to say aloud to help myself and possibly to help someone else. Some part of me believes this. We don’t end up adopting him, but in a way, he adopts me—appearing at just the right times over the next few months to help me remember and pull up these old memories. Coincidence? I think not—Carl Jung says what doesn’t come to you in consciousness comes to you as fate. For me, Todd is both.

So while the world is going on, Julie talking about the cat outside and how he must not have a home and we’ll have to feed him and this and that, I try to distract myself, doing something on the computer or my phone, playing a game, drinking a glass of wine—but that’s not where I am. I’m not even in my body. I’m in a field in Hartland, Michigan, and I am 11.

* * *

I’m in a field of tall grass in the heat of summer. Sweat drips and drops off of me. My blonde hair is pasted against my neck and face. I’m not a very sweaty kid, I’m more of misty kid. Sweat covers me most days from head to toe when it’s hot. I’ve never liked the heat even though I was born in the summer. It gives me a headache. I wish I did like summer. Everyone else can’t wait until it comes around, but I’m too fair-skinned to ever fall in love with it. Most summer days I’m inside, in the water or somewhere cool. If not, I’m likely complaining and miserable, because I can’t stand the heat. But not today. Today, I’m out in the field next to our home in Hartland, Michigan, just three lines in from my thumb, that’s where I live on the map. I’m playing with a bunch of kittens. They are the sweetest things ever, their tiny green eyes and soft baby fur. I love them so much I’ll even stand right in the heat of the sun for them. I whisper to them—things I’ve never heard anyone say to me. “I love you, little kitten.” Always in a hush. I know if someone hears they’ll tease me. We don’t say such things at my house and I don’t know why we don’t, but we don’t and if you even think of such things, someone will call you a baby, an asshole, a witch or something worse. “You’re my best friends.” Grinning as I tell them. A tear wells in the corner of my eye when I say it. I don’t know why that tear does that. I blink it back. “No sense crying over some silly cats.” That’s what I tell myself whenever I start to worry about something I shouldn’t or can’t do anything about. I’m 11, crying is for babies. “No sense crying over that.” The cats are tiny, maybe six or eight weeks old, two gray, one black, and two black and white—“a mixed breed,” Momma would say. I’ve named each of them after someone famous, someone I might be like when I grow up. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone their names. It’s a secret between me and my kittens and if I did tell someone they’d laugh at me and I’d never hear the end of it. There is no use for imagination where I live, but my imagination is strong inside of me. I’m the baby out of 10 kids, so I’m used to having things taken away from me, but they can’t take away what’s in my head, especially when I don’t tell them what’s there.

Momma and Daddy have been gone for nearly a year—I’m not sure they are ever coming back. Daddy, who is this old guy with wispy gray hairs on the top of his head, always covered by a trucker hat or a Greek fisherman’s hat, even though he is not Greek or a trucker, pulled me aside one day and dragged me into the park, which made me want to scream and run away because he gives me the creeps. I get that feeling inside that says something bad is about to happen whenever I am alone with him, and for all the things I don’t feel or don’t admit—that’s one thing I do listen to. He promised he just had something to tell me and wouldn’t do anything bad, so I went with him into the park—and tell me something he did. He told me, with his old coffee breath streaming right out of his mouth into my nose and out the top of my head, that he and Momma were leaving to find work and they’d come back to get me. I didn’t really believe him because I hardly know him and in my family we don’t trust people we don’t know. I also didn’t know what to say. So I stood there in silence and pretended it wasn’t going to happen.

I never knew Daddy before last year when he moved in with us. No one ever even told me he was moving in. I only overheard Momma saying to one of the older kids, “We need him. We’ll have a better life if he’s around.” I haven’t seen anything better since he’s been around. Anyone who was old enough to move out of the house did, right away. Johnny and Bobby are the only ones left with me. With Daddy moved in, the rules changed fast. No TV, unless you wanted to watch PBS, which is the most terrible channel I’ve ever watched. We ate microwave food instead of real food and it didn’t taste good. Momma didn’t watch TV with us anymore, she played cards with him and I had to go to bed at 9:00. Before that I always stayed up past 11:00.

Momma and Daddy left me with Johnny and Bobby. Johnny is 18 and Bobby is 16. Johnny is in charge because he is older, taller than Bobby, and Daddy for that matter, and has a job. He doesn’t go to school anymore, because he quit. I don’t know why he quit, he never told me, and I never asked. He just stopped going one day and that was that. People do this kind of thing all the time in my family, they stop doing something or start doing something and never explain anything and no one asks and it seems no one even cares. Why would you ask anyway?

I’m so sad that Momma left me here and is off doing something with Daddy. I yell at Bobby and antagonize him, until he can’t stand it any longer and he hits me or chases me or holds me down and tickles me until I pee my pants, then he laughs at me and I’m humiliated, which actually makes me feel better than crying about missing Momma. That’s how we work through things around here. We don’t ever talk about a thing and wouldn’t know what you meant if you asked how we were feeling. I’d respond with “I’m alive aren’t I? That’s good enough for me.” But on the inside, I tell you, there’s something dark in me that would love to just jump in the pond and go under the water and never ever come back out. Just stay at the bottom all cried out and dead.

I much prefer living with Johnny and Bobby than having Daddy leering and lurking around every corner being weird and making me watch PBS. I sure do miss Momma though, but I never tell anyone that I do. It’s fun sometimes being with Bobby and Johnny. They let me stay up late, they give me money to leave them alone, and I go to the store and buy candy. They take me with them to places with this loud music playing—I feel like a wild animal, doing whatever comes into my head! Sometimes, though, I wish I were not here but somewhere else, where it’s just me and Momma.

These little kittens I have out in the field with me are like me. Well, not really. Their Momma kitty comes back and brings them food and they get milk from her sometimes, but they are kind of growing up on their own, just like me. Nobody tells me nothing about nothing about growing up, except wash your face, don’t chew with your mouth open and don’t wear that goddamn baseball hat every day. I try to act normal whenever I get in front of anyone I haven’t met before or when I’m at school and everyone else seems to know what they are supposed to be doing, but I’m just lost, walking around looking for someone to tell me what to do. But there isn’t anyone to tell me. These kittens are my only real friends. I know a few kids from school and from around town, but I don’t trust anyone outside my family. I can’t be honest with them. I might end up in a foster house or an orphanage or something worse, and I think the evil and good you know are better than the ones you don’t.

The kittens are good, that is one thing I know for sure.

It’s a sunny morning in the summer, the middle of June, before Bobby’s birthday, which is on the 25th. He is about to turn 17. In my mind, he’s a slob and an ugly-faced pig, but in reality, he’s a sweet-looking boy with a swath of blond hair that’s unruly but handsome all the same. His eyes are twinkling blue, just like mine and just like Momma says Daddy’s are, but I’ve seen Daddy and his eyes look old and gray, not twinkling at all. Bobby’s tall and trim and wears a pair of tight swim shorts when he works in the yard. Secretly I love him so much I’d like to hug him, but I’ll never, ever mention that to anyone, not ever.

I’m out in the sun twirling around in the dirt and I see Bobby and my sister Jenny’s husband, Fred. Fred used to smoke a lot of pot and sell it right out of the kitchen in their trailer. Since they have two kids now, he stopped doing that. Fred seems old to me, 25, with his long black ponytail and scraggly beard. They’re kind of whispering, but whispering in the way that boys do, not whispering at all. Fred says, “Man, there’s about 20 cats around here, I’ve got no idea how in the hell so many cats popped up so fast, but we’ve got to take care of them. The best way to do it is either put them in a bag and throw them in the pond, or put them in a bag and bury them in a hole.” I stop still from my twirling around and around and stare at the dirt. I’m stiff like a board and I want to scream at them “Don’t kill my friends!” but I don’t. It wouldn’t change a thing and they might decide to put me in the hole or in the pond as well, and while I would like to die lots of days, I can’t really make myself go through with that whole idea.

Bobby slams the screen door to the back shed of our house. When Momma was here she would have yelled, “Don’t slam the goddamn door.” But she’s not here so no one cares. I don’t like the slam of the door, but it doesn’t bother me enough to start something with Bobby. He comes back out of the house with a shovel. He strips off his shirt and throws it over one of the three laundry lines we have hanging from the house to the old falling-down barn that has an outhouse connected to it. It’s not a working outhouse—someone filled the holes with dirt. Bobby’s back is brown from sun and I notice muscle on him that I’ve never seen before. This summer he’s working on the hay farm for the first time ever. I don’t think he likes it too much but it’s the only work he can get. His mouth is closed tight and straight across—he’s on a mission. I stand out of the way with my back against the scraped-up house. We scraped the house last year and painted it, but didn’t have enough paint for the back of the house or the back shed, so they are rough to the touch and smell deep of rain and wood. It’s a smell that I would take with me in a bottle if I knew how. He marches off to the back right corner of the yard. He’s wearing his swimming shorts, his white tube socks and his blue Trax shoes from Kmart. I hate Kmart. I’d rather go to the mall, but we can’t afford anything at the mall so we shop at Kmart once a year for clothes. He jabs the shovel at the ground and jumps up and lands on the top of the shovel with both feet pushing it deep into the ground. He does this over and over and over. I know what he’s doing, but I don’t want to admit it. So I watch and watch and then I get hungry as if nothing is going on at all and go over to where he is. “You want a bologna sandwich?” I ask. “Get out of here, Amy,” he says, short and quick. Normally I’d protest and yell something or say something back, but this time I slink off and go and make myself a fried bologna sandwich. I like to cook, and frying up bologna is a special and easy treat. My bologna sandwich has two pieces of bologna, fried until the edges are brown and crispy, Miracle Whip on both pieces of bread, mustard squirted only on the bologna and six potato chips. After my sandwich and a long cool drink out of the hose to wash it down, I go back where he is digging and sit and watch. He’s knee deep in the hole now and I pretend I’ve no idea why he’s digging. I don’t say a word because that’s what we do—we don’t ask. We just pretend we know and keep going along as if we do, but this time I do know. I know he’s about to murder my friends, my little kittens. After what seems like hours, but probably isn’t, Bobby lifts himself up out of the hole. His feet and knees black with soil that Momma says “makes my garden grow the best tomatoes I’ve ever had.” He runs to the back shed of the house and gets a black garbage bag and I still don’t ask what he’s doing. But on the inside I feel something shaking, deep down inside of me that I push down as hard as I can. He heads to the field and I follow, but not too close. He doesn’t look down at all. He grabs each tiny kitten by the scruff of its neck and throws it in the bag. I press myself close to the side of the barn, the rough splintery-filled wood cool against my cheek, breathing in the sweet smell of the barn and holding my breath. I want to ask him what he’s doing and why he’s putting those kittens in the bag, but I can’t open my mouth. My heart beats as if the whole world is counting on me to ask, but I can’t. I turn and walk steady paces long and deep to the back of the barn where I can still see the hole Bobby dug. Unless you were looking for me, you wouldn’t see me. Bobby holds the bag full of kittens wriggling and jiggling out in front of him. He walks fast and even, without looking up, staring straight ahead. He stops above the hole and for one second looks like he might turn back, but doesn’t. He drops the bag of kittens into the hole and shovels dirt back where it came from. He’s moving fast, the shovel turning over and over, and finally the hole is full. His face is without expression at all. His eyes tell me different. There is a tiny bit of sadness leaking out of him, just like those tears leak out of my head sometimes. He tamps the back of the shovel on the dirt, scrapes it over once or twice to even it out and walks away. As if to say, “There, no one will know what I just did.”

I can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe. I lie down on the ground and hold onto it with my hands. The world is spinning out of control. Who puts cats in a bag and buries them? Why couldn’t I ask what was going on? Do I have time to dig them up? There’s got to be some other solution, I know there has to be. I can’t do anything though, I’m 11 and I’m just a baby on the inside still. I can’t do anything, the tears drip right out of my head, I can’t blink them back. I hold the grass as if it’s holding me back, keeping me from spinning right off the earth and into another universe, maybe one where cats don’t get put in bags and get thrown into a hole. I know I’m feeling something but I don’t know what. When I’m sure Bobby is not around, I go and lie next to that pile of smoothed-over dirt and pretend I hear those famous kittens and in my mind they are singing my name and saying, “Go, Amy—go far away and be alive.” And I know that one day I will. I’m not going to die here. I’m not going to die. I will never give up. I will say it over and over and over, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to stay here and be like this. I’m going to get out. I’m going to get out.

Ashes to Ashes

6782686535_f10c0ee9df_bWonder dog’s ashes are in the kitchen on the counter in a red and yellow flowered tin. No one asked – plastic bag? box? plain silver tin? I thought this was getting easier and yet – today it’s so much harder. I held back tears at least 10 times. I mean that’s what you are supposed to do – right? when you can hold them back you do? when you can’t you don’t? They all came out later, but in the moment I didn’t want to cry anymore.

We picked up Wonder’s ashes at Dignified Pets Cremation and drove to the Oregon Coast with the windows down and Wonder in her tin. Zelda our other dog laid in the back of the car as if nothing was different. The day Wonder died little Z went over to Wonder’s bed and laid down in it, but other than that nothing seems different for her.

I asked Wonder for a sign – I know that sounds silly – seeing as I don’t believe in an afterlife. I do believe energy is energy and it has to go somewhere. So, I asked and at the Coast nothing remarkable happened. No sign – okay.

We got home, fed Isabel the cat and Zelda and went for a drink and some dinner. We ended up at Cascade Barrel House. We don’t go there that often, but it was a spring-ish/summery kind of day and the only beer I like are sours and it seemed fitting for warm weather.  Julie, my partner of partners, my forever dream date, has been amazing through all of this, looks at the menu and says they have a Wonder Red on the special list. I hadn’t told her about asking for the sign and I hadn’t looked at the menu yet. Wonder Red? A sign? I don’t know – I’ll take it. I’ve never seen a beer called Wonder or another dog called Wonder. So maybe somehow the two mean something. Wonder. Wonder?

It takes me back to when my brother was dying. He was having a hard time coming to terms with it. He was 30 and I was 25. I didn’t understand it either. He had moved to Portland to be closer to family. I didn’t know that meant he was going to die soon. Looking back, it should have been obvious. He had once been tall and handsome. But now his 6’2″ muscly, strong body, had withered to less than 100lbs.

He pulled me aside one day, his soft pin-striped button down brushing against my skin, his cane clicking every other step as we walked. It was just after my birthday, where he had given me a diamond earring. Now I see he was trying to tell me something. But at the time, I only wondered why he’d given it to me. He’d never given me anything before, except a hard time, like any good big brother.

He stopped, his eyes dropped to mine, bending over a little. His blue eyes dancing, “I want to take you to breakfast this week, okay? Just us, okay?” “Yeah sure Bob, yeah.” He liked to be called Robert these days, but I could never come to terms with that change. He was Bobby to me. No matter what my Father said years ago about a real man not being called Bobby. He was a real man – an ex-Navy officer.

We went to breakfast at his favorite place and he ordered his bacon – soft, not crispy. I thought – who orders bacon in a particular way? It’s just bacon. That’s how he was though, unlike me he knew what he liked and how he wanted it. I took note that I might want to figure that out one day.

We sat and ate and talked about our Mother and Father, who had both been gone for 6 years. Then he stopped and with conviction said “Amy, I’m going on a trip, do you want to go with me?”
“Bob, you should ask your doctor about this trip, I don’t think you can go on a trip right now.”
“No really, I’m going on a trip and I want you to come.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I’m going with or without you.”
“Okay then, where are you going?”
“Somewhere like Hawaii or something tropical.”
I was young. Going to Hawaii was so far removed from my life that the thought of saying yes made me dreamy and so I did. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”

Bob ended up in the hospital ten days later. He kept saying he wanted to go home and see his dog Molly. He wanted to be home with her. While people left to get “home” ready for him, I sat on the side of his hospital bed “Do you need more morphine?”
“No, I’m fine. I just want to be home.”
We talked but not much.
His breath slowing.
“Can I hold your hand?” I asked
He smiled. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry if I start crying Bob, I know it’s probably weird to have people standing around crying when you are here feeling like this.”
“It’s okay.”
It was clear he was not going to be going home.
“You know Bob, if there is something after this, could you send me a sign? I’ve wondered if there is something else after this life and I know you understand that. So send me a sign okay?”
“Yeah, okay.”

He took his last breath not long after that. And he was gone.

I went about life as quickly as I could, working, being busy, getting away from grief. Bob came to me in dreams those first couple of weeks, continuing to talk about his big trip. I thought that was sign enough, but I was young and kept asking him for more signs.

I went camping not long after that. I loathe camping, but for some reason I was going camping. One night as a million stars shined down, I looked through the fire and there was Bob standing by a tree and he said – “I’m still going on that trip. Do you want to go with me?”

I don’t know if it was real or I was delirious from grief, but it scared me, so much so that I yelled “You’re scaring me now! I can’t do this – you have to go!”  I have not seen my brother again.

Was he trying to tell me that there was something after this life or that your energy doesn’t die? My brother and I agreed before he died that it was the latter. You don’t disappear you live on in some way even if only in the collective thoughts of everyone else.

That’s how life goes. We learn from our previous experience, or if we choose not to learn, we might experience it in the same way. For me – when I ask for a sign, I’ll take the first one. Thank you Wonder Red for appearing on a menu.
2501155050_72f2046362_b 3737255363_aa803315e1_b 4616894891_db8e5c8bba_b 5154521429_8fba8367f8_b 2169605949_dd6300429d_b

coffee shop writing

I have writer friends who say they write better in a coffee shop, or maybe not better, but they actually write instead of sitting and staring at the page.

Today, I decided to go to a coffee shop to write.  I suppose it is something you have to get used to.  There were a lot of people at the coffee shop, old people, young people, more old people, babies.  Some reading, some eating, some meeting.

I ordered a coffee and one egg and toast, the usual for me. I sat and began. Two people next to me talked about allergies, an older man in a well-worn pair of Chuck Taylor’s read a newspaper, another old man in golf gear and with red, red face read a book and blew his nose in a foghorn sound into a napkin, over and over. A police officer and a large lady with brilliant red hair and flower tattoos as sleeves sit discussing something that seems important.

Maybe coffee shops that don’t serve food are a little less crazy? Or maybe my writer friends who write in coffee shops are crazy? Normally I write in silence or with baroque music playing – it’s supposed to spur creativity – or with a metronome in the background – the rhythm quiets my mind.

I stayed with it though and thought, you won’t know until you try.

I often write down ideas for my next writing session and write a few lines and leave it for a few days or weeks and then come back and bang it right out. I thought I might try that and worked on a few pieces and then I opened a piece I wrote back in January that at the time I believed was the first chapter of my book and all of a sudden I had it. The words they flew onto the page as if from somewhere else and then Guns n Roses – Sweet Child of Mine – came on the overhead in the coffee shop and I knew I must be on the right track. My life IS a story! Sweet Child of Mine – reminds me of my best friend from college, which were sweet and not so innocent times, and the fact that I was once a sweet innocent child despite my upbringing.

Where do we go now? Where do we go now?

I realize about an hour into writing that there is a problem with this writing in a coffee shop idea – at least for me – sometimes the things I write, especially those from my childhood bring me to tears.  Here I sit in a coffee shop writing, tears dripping, once in a while. Feeling weird, but going with it anyway.

Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe ~ Truman Capote

Listen for the clues, they are all around. Stay with it, stay and then – GO!